We are divided and faltering in Minnesota and the United States, staggering through a state government shutdown over a legislative refusal to raise more revenue, and teetering on the brink of a disastrous and unprecedented default on our national debt for essentially the same reason.
It’s embarrassing for our state and nation — and depressing — when our political system falls into dysfunction. More than a decade of economic stagnation or decline for most households doesn’t help, and worries about the national and international economy sink us further in a swamp of despair.
Let’s not sugarcoat it. This is a mess. These clearly are not the best of times.
But these aren’t the worst of times, either. Nor is this even the most divisive chapter in our state or nation’s history. We been through tougher days, and we somehow survived and even thrived. Here are some rearview glimpses of those harder times.
Dakota Conflict and Civil War, 1861-65: Just four years into statehood, Native American Minnesotans and new Minnesotans of European ancestry were killing each other by the hundreds in our own internal civil war, easily the most violent chapter in our state history and leading to the largest mass execution in U.S. history. Thousands of the newer Minnesotans, meanwhile, were fighting a much larger national Civil War during the darkest period in U.S. history. The nation nearly came apart as brothers literally were fighting brothers over the great stain of slavery. In proportional terms, the loss of life was seven times worse than any other war before or since. To this day, many of the cultural and political differences that divide us are marked by a north-south demarcation and racial tensions.
Grasshopper Plagues, 1870s: New farms and towns in southern and western Minnesota were just beginning to prosper from some of the richest soil in the world when wave after wave of Rocky Mountain locusts invaded from the west for several years running, in some cases devouring every green living thing over thousands of acres. Many new Scandinavian and German immigrants lost everything they had. Nothing like it has been seen before or since. Governors opened state coffers and mounted relief efforts and statewide prayer campaigns, and the somewhat mysterious plague never occurred on that scale again. We have had very grave farm crises related to economics and weather since then, but it’s hard to imagine something worse than an enemy that simply eats up all the food.
Influenza of 1918: As World War I was coming to an end, a worldwide flu epidemic killed at least 50 million people, including 12,000 Minnesotans, mostly young adults in the prime of life, and many times the death toll from the war. Almost every family was touched in some way by the epidemic. Something of a shutdown was imposed on the state that fall. All public meetings were banned, and for a while all schools, churches, theaters, dance halls and billiard parlors were closed. We still have health scares, and medical advances have not removed the threat of pandemic communicable diseases. But adjusting for today’s population, a scourge of this magnitude would kill 30,000 Minnesotans, roughly equivalent to the entire population of Mankato.
The Great Depression and World War II, 1929-45: Today’s state unemployment rate is hovering around 7 percent, but at the depths of the Great Depression those rates exceeded 25 percent in some regions. This calamity was followed closely by an international fascist threat and the rise of murderous and aggressive regimes in Germany, Japan and Italy, the loss of tens of millions of lives, rationing and deprivation at home and sacrifice that earned the nickname “Greatest Generation” for our parents and grandparents. They paid higher taxes, created a more secure economy, volunteered by the millions to serve and die for our country, and made things better — a lot better.
Cold War, 1948-90: It’s hard to pick a single scariest year in the four decades of international struggle called the Cold War, but I can remember feeling particularly scared in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, and always worried about a nuclear Armageddon. We baby boomers were literally hiding under our desks in disaster drills, as our dads and moms wondered whether to build a bomb shelter in the backyard. Today’s supposed global war against Middle Eastern terrorists simply doesn’t compare. Our enemies in the Cold War actually had the capacity to physically destroy the United States, and together we could have ended the world.
Vietnam/Civil Rights/Watergate, 1965-1974: I’ll never forget the national despair of 1968 and 1974. Hard-hats screaming at hippies, segregationists murdering civil rights workers, protests against a century of exclusion and oppression, a wrongheaded land war in Asia, cities and college campuses erupting in flames and gunfire. And on the heels of these deep wounds came President Richard Nixon’s resignation and a Watergate scandal that was like no other, in that it caused a steep slide in public confidence in political leaders to do the right thing, from which we have never really quite recovered.
The travails of 2011 pale in comparison. Political gridlock in Minnesota is scary, but similar divisions and deadlocks have occurred repeatedly over the last 40 years, and we haven’t had one-party control of the Legislature and the governor’s office since 1990.
We do have a public safety net against the ravages of market failure and recession. Most of us are living longer and healthier lives than ever. Our economic output is actually rising, although benefits are more unevenly shared. The world situation is much less frightening than during the Cold War and World War II. Minnesota still ranks as one of the best and most blessed provinces in the entire world, actually improving on some measures in recent years even as it declined on others.
This will get worse before it gets better, but we must come through this with a sense of renewal, coming together and setting new goals, redesigning our systems so that our governments work better and prosperity is more broadly shared. And we know we can do this, because we’ve done it before.